Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Art of the Deal (GUMSHOE all)

I've been playing Batman Arkham Underworld, a fun little clash of clans app that has you, as one of Gotham's would-be villains, storm the city with your thugs and hired supervillain. At first I thought I wouldn't like it, but I'm being sucked in. The Dead Rabbits will crush the Bat! Or words to that effect, anyway.

That's not what I'm going to talk about. There's an in-game mechanic whereby you can speed up the build time of a room or item, or just get more in-game currency, by watching video adverts. I'm interested in advertising in an amateur know-thy-enemy way, and I'm just as fascinated by advertising done poorly as I am by well-crafted attempts.

Make no mistake, this is bad, bad stuff.

It's not that the mechanic doesn't work. It does. I often set up a room to refurb in, say, a couple hours, turn on a few of the ads to get it done in a couple minutes, and then get on with my day. From a game perspective, I get what I want, and the game maker gets the ad revenue. So we both benefit, but as soon as I set up the ad view I walk away. I don't absorb the content, and that's because it's really poorly targeted.

The game must already know my age and gender, from the data already available on the device. I would be amazed if it only knew my age and gender. So why is it trying to sell me a match-three garden building game? Or a dating sim? Why, when it targets me with a spokesperson, does the ad use a girl who looks all of sixteen spouting a load of old wank about dragons?

Why advertise Facebook, at all? Surely everyone with a mobile device knows what Facebook is by now? Doesn't it come pre-loaded on Apple tablets and phones, and probably most if not all the Androids?

It's as if the game either doesn't know my age and gender - which is utter balls - or it doesn't care. I suspect the latter, but it means a lot of people are spending a ton of money to no purpose.

At least trying to sell games is understandable. All the games are either pay up front or freemium, which means they're heavy revenue earners. But even then the ad could do a better job selling me the product.

Take the story sims Episodes and Choices, both of which seem very similar in style and content. In each case the app tries to sell to me using romance ads. Why? Both apps also have mystery stories, danger stories, fantasy plots, and any of those would have been a better ad choice than romance.

Or take the Facebook ad. It makes perfect sense to sell me something that isn't a game. After all, there's a ton of products out there I might be interested in. Yet of all the products in all the world, it has to walk in with Facebook? Sure, Facebook's probably one of the few non-game vendors interested in putting ads on the Apple game store. But if this is how Zuckerberg's spending his ad buy, the guy's much, much stupider than I ever thought.

Somewhere west of Laramie there's a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl ... who knew how to sell cars. Advertising's an art, and I often think there are no artists in advertising any more. God knows what happened to Don Draper's grandkids, but they lost the knack of making sales when they went all-in on the internet. I'm constantly being told that advertisers are collecting everything up to and including shoe size and pet's sexual preference in order to better target me. So why do I feel as though I'm not being effectively targeted?

I first became interested in using adverts in-game when Cyberpunk 2020 was still a thing. Now there's a genre that believes in style over substance. Its Chromebooks were essentially lists of in-game stuff your character could buy, and as with any list of stuff in RPGs the whole point is to get better stats and improve your efficiency at in-game tasks. But the Chromebooks made it interesting by pitching each item with its in-game ad buy.

Want to buy clothes that boost your stats or which provide better armor? Sure, but you're not just buying a leather jacket with better SP. You're buying a Ruf Tread(tm) combo bodysuit and jacket. 'If it can stop a round and won't embarrass you to wear it, it's cool,' says a satisfied customer.

You have a need for speed? Try the Ares Combat Bike. It uses the patented Brennan cycles Gendarme chassis, making it one of the most durable cycles on the road. Maybe it comes with its own steer-roping girl ...

Ultimately it's all about world building. Cyberpunk sold itself that way because it wanted to create the kind of world cyberpunk could flourish in. It wouldn't feel the same if the Chromebooks were just a list of stats, and nothing else. Whereas the old D&D equipment guides were often just a long list of glaives, guisarmes, guisarme-glaives, glaive-guisarme-glaives, guisarme-guisarme-glaive-glaive, old MacDonald bought the farm, ee ai, ee ai, critical hit. It didn't try to sell the gamer on the game world because it assumed it didn't have to, in its first incarnation. Its subsequent iterations have become much more savvy.

I've touched on world-building using background noise before. However it's worth going a little further with the concept, because everything you do here helps your players envision the kind of world they're in, and therefore the kind of environment they can help you create.

Let's take Bookhounds of London as a starter, and add in a bit of Dorothy Sayers.

Sayers once worked in advertising, and used this as the background for her mystery Murder Must Advertise. In that story her detective Lord Peter Wimsey disguises himself as his alter ego Death Bredon and works at ad agency Pyms to uncover a dope ring. While there Bredon becomes fascinated by advertising and invents a campaign for Whifflets, a cigarette brand. The idea is this: each time you buy Whifflets you're given stamps. On their own they're worth little, but if you collect enough of them you can exchange them for free goods or services, anything from a tea set to a trip to Portsmouth. WIFFLE YOUR WAY AROUND BRITAIN screams advert banners on a bus.

'The only thing you cannot get by Whiffling is a coffin,' Sayers remarks. 'It is not admitted that any Whiffler could ever require such an article.'

This happens in 1933, if the novel's publication date can be considered the actual timeline. That means Bookhounds will get the full force of the campaign. So what do they smoke? Do they collect  Whifflet coupons? If so, what are they saving up to get? Can they use a Whifflet obsession to ingratiate themselves with an informant? Can they use Whifflet coupons as a Bargaining chip?

Expand that and see what happens: ask yourself what they drink, wear, drive, where they go on holiday, what's in the cinemas right now. Remember that you can make all this up as you go along, and consider that you're trying to enforce a particular aesthetic, be it Arabesque, Technicolor, or Sordid. So taking Sordid as an example:

A long line of cinemagoers eagerly await their chance to see Hitchcock's latest murder chiller, their blue clouds of Whifflet smoke snaking up into the iron sky. They stand not ten feet from the spot where a flusher was found frozen to death, next to a sewer grate, with a diamond in his hand. Billboards shriek every way you turn: Lovely Day for a Guinness, Are You Whiffling Too?, Nutrax for Nerves. Winter bites through your coat and down to your bones, and you light up in a reflex action to ward off the cold. One of the cinemagoers asks if you're going to save your Whifflet coupon ...

No fellow feeling here, no inquisitive stares at the spot where a man died. The only spark of human interest is in the Whifflet coupon: an extra touch of covetousness in a world drowning in greed.

Of course all that's before we even consider the possibilities of subliminal advertising, which would be perfect for a Night's Black Agents game. Imagine a world in which vampires and their crowd-controlling products and messages could only be detected with special sunglasses, or in which a particular targeted ad could drive your brainwashed black program badass nuts.

Subliminals also work very well in an Esoterror context, for much the same reason. Picture a world in which the videos in your YouTube feed propagate Membrane-shattering messages, or a shadowy media corporation uses hidden messages to influence a crucial presidential election. The newly elected president then goes on to enact policies and force through budgets that completely shatter what little protection the Membrane has, and so on.

But that's enough from me today. See you next week!

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